The Mirror of Kushchevskaya


Russians’ attitude to self-government seems a bit like St. Augustine’s stand on chastity: Give it to us, Lord, but not now. In theory, devolution of power from the centre to the regions is a good thing. It seems natural that in a country that big – geographically it is the biggest – people must be free to decide what is best for them and the state should be more local and flexible.

But when it comes to actually using their freedoms, local communities often fail to build something remotely civil or, what’s the word, democratic. It’s been twenty years since the demolition of the USSR and still, at times, people create such monsters that soviet functionaries would have shuddered.

The story of the Kushchevskaya murder becomes ever more gloomy the more deeply we look at what happened in this small town on the South of Russia.

At first it seemed like an evocation of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – the brutal cruelty in the way in which twelve people, including three children, were killed is nauseating. Yet, oddly it was comforting too - shit happens. When more information appeared the storyline changed: a local gang has been terrorising the town for years and all that time the authorities have been covering murders, extortion and rape.

Why do people live like this? Twisted by fear they don’t fight. What is baffling, though, is that they are not leaving either. In the town with only 30,000 people a dozen men were killed with impunity and more than two hundred women were allegedly raped. If it is not a horrible place to live in, then where is?

Kushchevskaya is a wealthy, even prosperous town. Its booming economy based on the growing demand for the local produce is in many ways a role model: it’s real – production, not re-sale - and has nothing to do with the export of raw resources.

The problem that cries out to us is that the peculiar social order in the town is a part of its well-being. There are no lawless communities and, when the state left – there are the police and the prosecutors, of course, but they seem to be focused on their own interests - the law was re-instated by a group of businessmen and the community consented to it. Better some order than no order at all.

‘Laws are only servants of culture’, wrote Friedrich Schiller. ‘Nations in their adulthood require a different guidance from that of their childhood.’ What the people of Kushchevskaya managed to build was the most primitive legal system of all, blood vengeance. Here an offence – and that can be rape or murder – is essentially a private matter, the state being an instrument without an own role to play. The strong rule and the weak suffer.

The history of Russia is the history of a solid, hierarchic organisation. In a way, Russia is an army. From the Tartar Yoke in the 13-15th centuries, the Novgorod siege by the Ivan the Terrible in 1570, the reforms of the Peter the Great and the years of the Soviet Union - the response of the nation to historical challenges has always been centralisation, not devolution.

The Constitution of 1993 aims to change this. It is based on a clear-cut division of powers between the centre and the regions. The law of 1995 ‘On local self-government’ was very liberal and it seemed that the state really wanted to pass some authority to the regions.

The policy was reversed when Vladimir Putin came to power. He fought everything small, local and independent. In December 2004 gubernatorial elections were abolished, with governors now serving at the behest of the president. The recently proposed police reform makes it an even more centralised organisation than it had been in the USSR.

Historians believe that the social order is the truest reflection of a nation and of its values. That is why many collections of laws are known as ‘mirrors’. As it happens, once something gets into the public eye similar facts start popping up all over the country. It seems that Kushchevskaya is not unique. Self-government has failed in many places.

And if that is true, then Vladimir Putin is right and Russia must get back to where it was - to the USSR, an overcentralised and overbearing state. Hopefully, it would be the lesser evil.


December 5, 2010